Friday, April 1, 2016

The Winter’s Tale and The Gap of Time

 Our president, Frances, has once again written a thoughtful and detailed review of a Shakespearean film and book. Read on to be informed, educated and entertained!

A few weeks ago I saw and very much admired the film of The Winter’s Tale presented by the Kenneth Branagh Company.

Every member of the cast perfectly suited his or her role and the action was enhanced by the excellent sets and particularly by the lighting.

For days afterwards my head was absolutely full of the play and its progression. We watched the transition from the genial warmth of family love and long friendship, through doubt and suspicion to conviction, and on to murderous obsession and sadistic cruelty. After the horrifying result of this pathological jealousy there was the inevitable but futile remorse and the long winter of regret.

To go from that to the Bohemian spring could have been quite a jolt, but here we slipped easily into the new scenes, thanks to the beautiful tenderness with which Antigonus (Michael Pennington) left the baby Perdita to her fate; and then the gentle humour and spontaneous delight of the shepherds when they discovered her.

The sheep-shearing celebrations were all youthful energy, filled with the promise of a fruitful future. We saw the temporary shadow cast by Polixenes’s threats and the lovers’ escape, leading finally to the stunning finale. This was an absolutely magical scene, thanks mainly to the effortless authority of Paulina’s (Judi Dench) ‘stage management’, the brilliant lighting creating mysterious, almost other-worldly shadows and gleams, and the costuming and pose of Hermione, all supported by the music and the rapt attention of the onlookers. We could certainly be convinced that here was a woman finally emerging from the frozen waste of grief and just able to see a way to forgiveness.

Judi Dench as Paulina
While I was still absorbed in the impressions of the play I got hold of Jeanette Winterson’s new book The Gap of Time. Winterson is re-telling the story of The Winter’s Tale in the form of a novel, for a modern reader. And it certainly is up to the minute: set right in the second decade of the 21st century.

With only minor name changes, the characters are the same – Leontes becomes Leo, Hermione is Mimi and Perdita is unchanged – but much more importantly, their status, in the world and relative to each other, is retained. Clearly we can’t expect to see too many kings and courtiers, so Winterson has found the modern equivalents. Instead of ruling a country, Leo is head of a huge financial organisation; Xeno (Polixenes) has made a fortune as the inventor of wildly successful computer games. Autolycus is no longer a pedlar who picks pockets; he is now a used car salesman who cheats at cards. Bohemia has become a large city in southern USA – New Bohemia – and who are the disadvantaged there? Not struggling shepherds but poor black people. And so on …

 It is fun to note the clever ways in which the author has transposed the characters and situations from four centuries ago, but the main interest of the book lies in her skill at creating a fascinating new work in its own right, while remaining faithful to the themes of the original play.

As the writer of a novel, she has certain advantages over a dramatist. A play (nearly always) shows us events in the order in which they occur, but in this novel Time is frequently re-arranged. We are taken back and forth to get a new understanding of causes and effects. Thus, the central turning point of the play, the abandoning of the baby during the storm, is made the strikingly dramatic opening event of the novel, and much later we catch up with what led to it.

The novelist can give her characters back stories, which playgoers have to conjecture for themselves. So Winterson can provide explanations for how individuals met, in what their formative experiences consisted, why they behave as they do. She provides absorbing backgrounds for Pauline and Perdita’s adoptive father, for instance, as well as stories to explain the attachment between Leo and Xeno.

Going even further, a novel can show us the characters’ inner unspoken thoughts. Admittedly Shakespeare used soliloquies, asides and direct approaches to the audience, but there are not many in The Winter’s Tale. Winterson lets us right into Leo’s mind when he is in the grip of his ‘tremor cordis’ with confrontingly explicit (and entirely believable) language, as he spies with the help of CCTV on his wife and his old friend.

It struck me that modernising The Winter’s Tale presented three particular problems: the Oracle, the death of Mamilius and the statue.

What today constitutes an absolute and unquestionable authority equivalent to the Delphic oracle? Well, that proved a minor stumbling block. We all place our faith now in medical science; DNA tests provide certainty; anyone rejecting their results would seem to be irrational.

With modern marriages seldom regarded as life-long commitments, it is hard to believe that a young boy would die of shame over his parents’ separation, even when domestic violence is involved. Winterson keeps us tantalisingly in suspense over the fate of the boy, Milo. We know that he is no longer with Leo but almost to the very end there is the question: what happened to Milo? The mystery is eventually neatly and entirely plausibly explained.

The final and (to my mind) the most difficult feature of the tale is the device of the statue. However, thanks to the incidental information scattered through the book, the reader knows what has happened to Mimi. The means by which Pauline brings her back and persuades Leo to attend her return follows logically from the subtly established indications of her breakdown and withdrawal from public life. The ‘effect’ of a statue is cleverly implied.

This is a book which could be read as a gripping and beautifully written story by anyone, even without acquaintance with The Winter’s Tale. However, familiarity with the play provides an extra dimension to a reader’s appreciation. I think that the novel’s greatest strength is that, while able to stand alone on its own merits, it stays true to the play. Thinking about the book brings us constantly back to the characters, the events and the insights into human psychology of the play. 

And here is a little bonus in the form of poem, especially written to honour the film by Frances's friend Erica Jolly.

She has very kindly agreed to allow us to put it up on our blog, as another, completely different, take on the play.

A Real Birthday Present

After seeing "The Winter's Tale"
brought live from London
to a cinema in Adelaide.

Can we face the stretch and expanse of time
the aching grief, the agony we need to feel
the price, the awful price, we have to pay
for decisions made in rage or jealousy?

When will we learn, take in the fearful truth
of the impact of abuse of power and fury
of minds quite lost to kindness and mercy
demanding underlings fulfil their orders?

How many babes must be lost on shores
left, perhaps, to the surge of an incoming tide,
to be food for scavenging bears and wolves or,
with luck, to be found and given the chance to live?

I am asking these questions thinking of Perdita saved
from death by the love and daring of two old turtle doves.